Craig Wollenstein is a professional transit trainer who teaches people with disabilities how to commute by bus and subway. But Wollenstein, who lives in Park Slope and uses a wheelchair himself, doesn’t have an accessible subway station nearby, so he’s forced to take a 40-minute bus ride before he can even get on the train to meet his clients.
“It’s hard to motivate other people to get on the train when I don’t even live by [an accessible station],” he said.
Wollenstein was among roughly 80 people who showed up to a three-hour-long hearing Wednesday night at MTA Headquarters about the agency’s plan to upgrade at least 50 stations in the next five years. As part of MTA President Andy Byford’s Fast Forward initiative, the goal would be to ensure that New Yorkers will always be no more than two stops from an accessible subway station. The public meeting, while previously scheduled, occurred a week after a young woman’s death on a set of subway stairs prompted a citywide discussion about public transit accessibility.
But the upgrades promised under Fast Forward are contingent on funding though the MTA’s 2020-2024 capital program. MTA officials say it’s difficult to predict how much the upgrades will cost, since each station is different. The previous capital plan, which covers 2015-2019, budgeted more than $1.3 billion for 28 accessibility upgrades across various stations. The 2020 plan is expected to be finalized at the end of 2019, officials said.
Billed as “a discussion about the next accessible subway stations,” Wednesday's meeting gave New Yorkers with disabilities a chance to weigh in about which stations they thought should be highest priority for accessibility upgrades like elevators and ramps. Soliciting opinions from New York’s disabled community was a new strategy for the agency, said MTA accessibility chief Alex Elegudin.
In the past, “the stations that we made accessible were selected by statute, so there was not a lot of discretion in terms of what stations came next,” Elegudin told the crowd. “But now we’re at a place with the Fast Forward Plan where we get to talk to you, talk to the community, look at stations throughout the system, and make the decisions as to which stations will go next.”
Currently, the MTA says that 24 percent of its subway stations are wheelchair accessible. However, a recent study by the Manhattan Borough President’s Office suggests that the actual percentage might be even lower. And even when stations do have elevators, they’re often broken or otherwise unusable.
Elegudin and Byford listened as attendees spoke passionately about broken elevators, inaccessible stations, and incomprehensible announcements.
“When the [escalator] goes down, it’s 134 steps,” said Brooklyn Community Board 18 vice chair Michael Ien of the Broadway Junction station. “That is tragic there.”
One wheelchair user, Blanche Bush, said the MTA had done a “shoddy job” on the renovation of her station in East New York. “Do you not think that we use the trains?” Bush said. “Our money is the same color as yours. We deserve the same thing you’ve got in your area.”
“I can’t turn the clock back," Byford responded. "You’re preaching to the converted.”
Byford, who became president of the agency in January of 2018, appointed Elegudin this past summer as the MTA’s first Senior Advisor for Systemwide Accessibility. The new role is part of Byford’s push for subway accessibility, which is one Fast Forward’s four pillars.
In addition to transfer points and stations with high ridership, attendees said that the MTA should prioritize stations close to hospitals, schools, support services, and cultural attractions like museums and stadiums. Attendees also stressed the importance of modifications for deaf, hard of hearing, and visually impaired New Yorkers, like bumpy tiles along platform edges and text-based service advisories.
“We’re getting consensus across the board,” Elegudin said after attendees suggested that the Parkchester 6 stop, which serves 16,570 people each weekday, be prioritized for accessibility upgrades. “It’s beautiful.”
Elegudin and Byford ended the event by promising attendees they’d collate and act on their suggestions. In the meantime, New Yorkers with disabilities have to make do with buses, the 118 or so accessible subway stations, and alternatives like Access-A-Ride.
“The goal would be to have 100% accessibility,” said Eli Ramos, who added that he was happy to see Elegudin, a friend of his and a familiar face in New York’s disability community, leading the discussion. Elegudin, a wheelchair user himself, founded multiple disability-related nonprofits before becoming accessibility manager for the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission.
Orbit Clanton, deputy executive director of Perceptions for People with Disabilities, said he felt like they’d made some progress.
“If you really want to make a difference, you listen to the community,” he said as the attendees filtered out of the building and into a fleet of waiting Access-A-Ride vans. “The voice of the disabled community was heard tonight.”